Q&A with Holly Cochrane

By   Jantien Abma 9 min read

Holly Cochrane is a food stylist and recipe writer based in London. Originally working in camera departments in the film and TV industry, Holly later turned her love of food and cooking into a career. She now splits her time as a freelancer between working as a food stylist for print and cookery shows and as a focus puller and camera operator on commercials, films and dramas.

1. How did you first get into food styling, and what was your first book project?

Although always in the back of my mind, working in food was not my initial career choice. I’ve always loved food culture, cooking and, of course, eating, largely because of my dad, who was a fantastic cook. Like his father, he worked as a director in the film and TV industry, and I too ended up following in their footsteps, working as a freelancer in camera departments. My interest in foodstyling was further fuelled when I started shooting on food and drink commercials and cookery programmes. On one shoot, I met food stylist (and my future mentor) Nicole Herft and spent most of my downtime hanging out in the kitchen, looking over her shoulder and asking endless questions. The shoot finished, and a few months later I decided to contact her to see if she’d have me along to shadow her on another shoot. I said I was happy to start wherever – coffee and tea duties, washing up… Her reply was, ‘Sure, got a two-week shoot coming up for a new Tom Kerridge book. How does that sound?’

It was an unbelievable opportunity and such a great first book project. It was a dream of a team, and everyone was very encouraging. Tom was there on set most days and once I got over my initial nerves, I settled into the kitchen well and learned so much from him and Nicole. Now I split my freelance life equally between food styling and the camera department and it works pretty much perfectly. I’m very lucky to work two jobs that I love.

2. You’re both a food stylist and a camera operator in the film industry. Does your eye for photography and aesthetics affect the way you create and style recipes?

Working in film and having a photographic eye definitely informs the way I work with food. For starters, creating a beautiful film frame and a beautiful plate of food both rely heavily upon one thing – good composition, and good composition is good balance! Just as I know that a recipe needs the right balance of flavours, colours and textures to work, I also know that a plate of food should be a complementary balance of elements. Too few elements can be plain and unappealing, while too many can lead to a confused plate of food. Other visual ‘rules’ also translate well from film to food styling, such as the use of circular composition to lead the eye, the implementation of contrasting tones and colours, and the placement of smaller elements to frame the focal point – in the case of food, the star ingredient. Although these artistic rules are good guidelines to work to, I try not to prioritise or obsess over them too much, as you run the risk of creating something which is style over substance, and which detracts from the produce and the taste. I love this quote from Travis Swikard, a chef at Boulud Sud in New York: ‘Food should be created with passion, thought and technique, but plated with a light hand, with direction from nature.’


3. Tell us how you make the transition from Instagramming your lunch to becoming a fully-fledged food stylist?

I think one common misconception is that food styling is just plating, but it’s not; it’s cooking, and you’ve got to be good at it. For this reason, some people segue into styling from a career already in, or at least focused towards, food – they’ve worked as a chef in a commercial kitchen, for example. Others starting out choose to go to a cookery school like Leiths, where you can study for a professional chef’s diploma.

My transition was pretty different, as I had no culinary background, and taking time out to go to cookery school wasn’t an option for me. I had worked to build a solid film career, which I wanted to continue alongside the styling; plus I had a mortgage to pay. So, with a passion for food and the desire to learn, I cooked compulsively, practiced my knife skills, read cookbooks and tried to be around other stylists as much as possible.

Contacting established food stylists is a great place to start. Scour food magazines and Pinterest for beautiful shots that you love, make a note of the food stylist and email them offering to come in and assist on a shoot. As an assistant you’ll be on standby for the food stylist’s every need, as well as prepping food for recipes, playing team barista and doing the washing up and cleaning. It’s hard work, but in my opinion being on set is the best way to learn – and not just about cooking. By watching the relationships between the photographer, props stylist, food stylist, designer and publisher, you’ll gain an invaluable understanding of the collaborative process that goes into getting a book or magazine to print.

Next, start building up your own portfolio. Once you’ve got a few shoots under your belt and a head full of ideas, use your newly gained skills and contacts and organise some test shoots with the photographer’s assistants you’ve met along the way. In a visual industry, having examples of your work is really important, so get a website up and running. If you can master the art of hashtagging and social media – Instagram in particular – this is also a great way of reaching people with your portfolio, as well as your lunch. I will never stop Instagramming my lunch, much to the frustration of my husband and friends who just want to dig in. ‘Camera eats first,’ I always say…

4. What are some insider tips for food styling?

Think colour, texture and shape – the first bite is with the eye. Creating a plate of food that is satisfying to the eye and on the palate comes from the combination of these three things, so you should consider them when writing a recipe, picking your produce and plating. Use a variety of colours and textures; if your dish is predominately one tone, add a pop of colour when plating with a wedge of lemon or a sprinkle of fresh green herbs if appropriate. If it has a smooth, creamy sauce, add a crunchy texture somewhere, like a breadcrumb topping on a macaroni cheese, for example. Shape is a good thing to experiment with too; ask yourself how you could cut or plate something differently to add interest to a dish.

Pick a style; be led by your recipe. If you’re shooting a burger, for example, go with casual styling so it looks real and effortless; try not to overthink it. Shoot from a side-on angle so you can see all the layers. Scrunch a piece of baking parchment to use instead of a plate, and get measuredly messy with oozy melted cheese and globs of dripping ketchup and mayo. Adding movement like this to shots is a great way to bring a still image to life and evoke the pleasure of eating. In contrast, if you’re shooting something like a pavé of fish with a delicate sauce and soft herbs, style with finesse and refinement. Be precise, clean and graphic, and take your time with every element of your plating.

Natural light is food’s best friend. Shoot in the daytime near a large window and, if the sun is streaming directly through, diffuse the light with a net curtain or cotton sheet. This will soften hard shadows, giving your image that coveted natural glow, without making it look too flat. If it’s a grey day and you’re struggling with a fall-off of light across your dish, bounce some of that window light back into your shot using a reflector, piece of white card or tin foil.

Work quickly. The likelihood is that what you’re working with will look its absolute best when freshly plated, so make sure everything else is set and ready to go. Add any elements of the dish that will wilt or discolour at the last minute, blanch vegetables to keep their vibrant colour and hang on to pan juices or cooking oils to replenish the sheen on meats and fish in case things start to dry out. Once you’ve got your shot, experiment! If you’re shooting a whole cake or pie, for example, cut out a slice and photograph it again. You might find that this adds an element of active reality to a shot, which makes the dish look even more inviting.

5. How much time (and energy!) goes into each shoot, and how many recipes can you usually style in a day?

Behind the photographs people are seduced by in a cookbook, a food magazine or an Instagram post, there’s a huge amount of backstage discussion, planning and testing. In the weeks before a shoot day, team meetings are held to discuss the creation of a consistent style that reflects the food content. The colour palette, props, backgrounds, lighting, photographic style and layout of the feature or book are all carefully considered. On the part of the food stylist, recipes are then often tested to make sure they work; obscure or elusive ingredients are miraculously obtained; and endless lists are made – shotlists for the photographer, equipment lists for the prop stylist, ingredients lists for online shopping orders and lists of meat and fish for the butcher and fishmonger. Most food stylists have forged great relationships with suppliers they know will send out that perfectly marbled steak or those big, fat scallops. The day before a shoot, the stylist or assistant will also prepare any recipes or elements of recipes that can be made in advance to help speed things up on the shoot day. Shoot days and shot numbers vary depending on the project, but most magazine features are 6-8 recipes and are shot in one day, while most book shoots are 7-10 days depending on the number of recipes.

The days often start early to make the most of the light, especially in the winter, and can be non-stop. While one recipe is being shot, the food stylist and assistant prepare the next. Most of the time you’re cooking several things at once, so you need to be on the ball with your timings in order to be sure nothing overcooks, burns or sits around for too long. Measurements need to be correct for the recipe to work and knife skills need to be bang on so that everything looks its best. You’re on your feet all day and it’s mentally and physically challenging, but no two days are the same. It’s huge amounts of fun working with people who are just as food-obsessed as you are, and when you get that perfect shot, it’s all totally worth it.